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Baseball To the Table-top: Part VI: It Happens Every Spring

[Back in the Fall 2010 issue of Gamers Alliance Report, frequent contributor K-ban, both a serious game player and baseball fan, launched a series of articles on the evolution of baseball simulations. With his fifth article finished, he figured he was done. He figured wrong! Once more, a few new simulations have emerged and, once more, K-ban offers his thoughts and insights, just in time for the start of this year’s baseball season. As he says: “It happens every spring”!! – – – – – – – – – – Herb Levy]

Reviewed by: K-ban

BASEBALL ON THE TABLE-TOP: PART VI: IT HAPPENS EVERY SPRING

Growing up in the early 60’s in NYC, the local NBC affiliate used to signal the end of spring training and the impending start of the new baseball season by showing the classic 1949 baseball fantasy movie, It Happens Every Spring. Ray Milland plays a college chemistry professor who accidentally invents a substance, methylethylpropylbutyl, that repels wood; you can connect the dots to mash together the Absent Minded Professor (Flubber) and Damn Yankees to know how the plot develops. It was recently transferred to DVD. Don’t miss it, and share it with a non-baseball loving spouse or girlfriend.

Two years ago I brought my GAR Baseball on the Table-top series to what I thought was the fifth and final chapter. Just when I thought there could be nothing REALLY new under the sun to capture our National Pastime with dice and cards, game designers like Joe Bryan and Keith Avallone come along and stand this niche hobby on its’ ear once again.

After my 3 year odyssey, exploring as many table-top baseball games as I could procure, I started grouping them by a key attribute….how does the Pitcher-Batter confrontation get resolved? Some games (APBA, Replay, Big League Manager) are hitter-centric. Roll dice and read results from the batter’s card and modify some results according to the pitcher’s grade/rating and occasionally consult fielders defensive ratings for range and/or error propensity.

Other games are Pitcher-centric. The initial roll of the dice (or flip of “Fast Action Cards”) starts on the pitchers card and if not resolved goes to the batter for a result. Statis Pro, Inside Pitch, Negamco, Sports Illustrated/Superstar and ASG Baseball all fit into this camp.

The 3rd category are 50/50 designs, where half the results come off the pitcher’s card and half from the batter. Strat-O-Matic, Ballpark, Pursue the Pennant/Dynasty League are good examples of this method to resolve an at bat.

Within these three main ways of resolving the interaction between pitcher and batter, there is a complexity continuum that attempts to balance ease and speed of play with statistical accuracy/attention to detail. These attributes are not mutually exclusive, just a case of different tastes for different gamers. So what happens when a baseball game designer invents a wonderful new recipe that combines familiar ingredients in a new and different way yet retains playability? The result is excitement that someone got it ‘right’. There were two new notable table-top baseball games in 2013 that received the kind of hype rarely experienced on internet discussion groups: History Maker Baseball (Plaay) and Pay-off Pitch Baseball (Sideline/PT)

History Maker Baseball (Plaay Games) designed by Keith Avallone. $36 post-paid with sample teams, card sets additional. http://www.plaay.com/)
image002Keith Avallone has designed some of the quirkiest sports simulations in the history of table-top games. Second Season and Cold Snap Football, Hockey Blast, Lacrosse Blast, Red, White & Blue Racing are among his best known designs. So it made a lot of sense for Keith to throw his hat into the most crowded and potentially lucrative sports niche…baseball.

Avallone’s vision with History Maker Baseball is to avoid competing with APBA and Strat-O-Matic, the two industry leaders, for the same consumers. In fact, HMB is not even trying to win over the crowd that insists on statistical accuracy. It was designed with a unique take on our National Pastime. HMB allows/encourages gamers to rate their own players and even provide (at $6 additional cost) instructions on how to do so, as well as providing downloadable templates for card creation, so you can easily rate and print your own. Let’s look under the covers at how HMB works (see 2013 Phil Garber batter and Turner Marshall’s pitcher cards as well as excerpt from main result chart below).

image004image006The first thing that’s different about HMB is the player ratings are WORDS/attributes rather than number/letter grades. Each attribute can be full or half -with a filled in circle that require same on the ‘decider die’ for that attribute to be in effect. Three 6-sided dice (white, silver and black) are rolled and read from low to high. So let’s say we roll a 3-3-4. If the pitcher is rated with a STAR (like Marshall) the result is a pop-out to first base. If not we move on to the batter column. Garber is NOT a SAD SACK, so no line out to short stop and on to the fielder column and a DOUBLE to left field. Some fielder results take us to Infield, Outfield and Plate Drama charts. Other charts factor in Umpire calls, rare plays, team chemistry, player experience and whether a particular player is HOT or COLD.main chart for HISTORY MAKER BASEBALL Big League Baseball Board Game

image008
In short you are managing your own baseball world that roughly approximates what players do in real life and then veers into fantasy. It comes as no surprise that some of the best selling HMB card sets are for fictitious leagues and appeal to Universal Baseball Association followers of Robert Coover’s J. Henry Waugh novel.

At first glance HMB is so different from other baseball games that one loses sight of what it really accomplishes. When reduced to lowest common denominator, HMB is actually a more complex variant of a classic from the 1950’s, Negamco Baseball. In Negamco, a single spun # from 1-50 is compared to Pitcher (rated 1-7 for hits/inning), then check for W or K, then on to the batters’ rating from A-Z (in increments of 20 batting points per 2 letters). If a hit, check doubles ‘d’, triples ‘t’ or numeric ratings for HRs. If none of the above, go to an out-chart that takes into account both fielding and on-base situations. HMB is essentially accomplishing the same with ratings seeming to be attributes (but check the optional ratings guide and see that certain attributes actually stand for a range of batting average or # of HRs/Doubles rather than being subjective).

So while I admire the novelty of Keith Avallone’s design and see why it could be seductive to some, I do have several nits to pick. A basic baseball game should take 15-30 minutes to complete once the rules are understood and a handful of games played. History Maker Baseball takes 30-45 minutes to play….closer to the time of far more complex and realistic fare. Adding ratings for Umpires is IMHO needless chrome. There is much page turning, using a spiral bound chart book that will likely fray and/or tear after repeated use. The game box is flimsy – a collapsible shirt box that makes transporting the game difficult (but makes it inexpensive to ship in a bubble pouch when new). Player cards are monochrome and relatively small compared to other baseball games. There are optional strategy cards for head to head play that I could easily live without.

The Internet campaign to selectively “leak” opinions of a very well respected group of beta testers was very effective in creating a feeding frenzy to pre-order the game when it was released in mid-2013. I laud Keith’s including card-making templates as a free download as well as encouraging gamers to post their own rated cards to share as downloads from Plaay’s web-site. Plaay just finished a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign to produce a durable Decider Die (blank on 3 sides, a solid dot on the other 3 for resolving semi-qualities). The big “extra” to induce investors (including this author) was a 100+ color set of the greatest baseball players in history.

I truly wanted HMB to be THE baseball design of the new millennium but, although I enjoy its novelty, I’m having a hard time getting through its short comings. It is good and very unique but not worthy of the hype. I want my statistical baseball games to focus on the stats and player ratings. YMMV.

image010Pay-off Pitch Baseball (Sideline Strategy/PT Games) designed by Joe Bryan $27 (Fast Action Card edition) with sample teams on PDF + postage. Card sets additional. PDF edition available in mono & color @ Sideline Strategy Games, printed mono on glossy thickPayoffPitchLogo_small stock from PT Games http://sidelinestrategy.com/ and/or http://sports.ptgamesinc.com/payoff-pitch-baseball/)

In Pay-off Pitch Baseball, Joe Bryan has created one of the most intuitive baseball games I’ve ever encountered. Hand almost any baseball simulation gamer two d6 of the same color and two d10 of different colors and show him a batter, pitcher and ballpark card and he can be rolling in minutes.

Pay-off Pitch’s pitchers roll 2d6 and their sum determines the quality of the pitch thrown….WHEELHOUSE (grooved where a hitter can smoke it), TOUGH (right where the pitcher wanted it with a decent shot at a whiff), PATIENT (control) or put the ball IN PLAY. Pitcher results can also depend on the BALLPARK or DEFENSE. The batter answers by rolling 2d10, reading them as a 2-digit number (dark then light die) in the appropriate pitch category. Outs appear right on the batter’s card, so there is very little need for outside charts. Ballparks influence power and defense. Fielders are rated for both range and error propensity. Hitters are rated for base running and stolen bases with optional methods for stealing when playing solo. Players are also rated for bunting, injuries as well as double plays. The DP system is clever as both the hitter and infielder’s rating is compared to 2d6 to determine DP/Fielder’s Choice results. Pages from 2013 PP batter indesignPages from 2013 PP pitcher indesign
image012image014Just like HMB’s pitcher-batter confrontation is loosely influenced by Negamco Baseball, Pay-off Pitch uses a mechanic that is very similar to the one George Gerney used in ASG Baseball (discussed in the Fall 2011 GA Report); the pitcher rolls to determine which column on batters card to utilize. This system handles outliers (low batting average, low walks or K’s) very well. Each batter and each pitcher have personality on their cards that their manager can discern at a glance.

A full game of Pay-off Pitch baseball takes 25-30 minutes with scoring. The PDF card-sets provide the options of L/R splits or not and the choice of mono or color (just the sections for the pitch types highlighted for easy reference). The printed sets are baseball card size, strictly mono and only with L/R splits. The game can be ordered either with dice (and complement of charts) or with Fast Action Cards resulting in fewer outside charts. I prefer using a hybrid method – rolling the 4 dice for most results and using the FACs for runner advance, fielding plays, bunting and stolen bases.

In addition to the current MLB season, Joe is rating 4-5 historical seasons annually, as the rating process is less automated than most baseball games. A 16-team fictional league card set was just released for those wanting to try their hand at fantasy. The printed version is strictly monochrome but of superior quality to most – thick, semi- gloss cardstock with high contrast clear printing. PT uses a sturdy storage box and prints charts on index stock. FACs are printed on the same thick semi-gloss stock as the player cards.

Pay-off Pitch Baseball plays very well solitaire but absolutely shines face to face, as one manager rolls for his pitcher while the other rolls for his batter. Pay-off Pitch Baseball has narrowly passed Strat-O-Matic Baseball as my favorite face to face table-top baseball game. Rub a dab of methylethylpropylbutyl on the ball and all your pitchers will be as TOUGH as King Kelly. Whoever thought there was nothing new under the sun (in baseball games, anyhow) hasn’t tried Pay-off Pitch Baseball. Highly recommended.


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